Metropolis: Wednesday, December 21, 2005
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A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Taser Times 25

A Midland architect received more than two minutes of electrical shock as he resisted arrest.

By PETER GORMAN

When Eric Hammock died last April 3, Fort Worth police said the Midland architect, chased by an off-duty officer after a minor trespassing incident, had been hit with a Taser one or more times. In July, police acknowledged that he had been shocked perhaps a half-dozen times. By November, police sources were informally admitting that he’d been jolted with the laser weapon 17 times.

Now, however, information released to Fort Worth Weekly under the state open records law shows that the 43-year-old motorist was shot 25 times with the 50,000-volt weapons — shocks that in some cases lasted as long as 11 seconds at a time, for a total of more than two minutes in which electricity was being coursed through his body.

What’s more, the officer who started the chase — and did most of the tasering — acknowledged in the records that, before he started tasering Hammock, the 6’ 1’’ overweight architect’s most aggressive move, when Hammock was already leaning over and sweating and breathing heavily, was to jerk his arm away from the officer’s grasp and put it back on his knee while he tried to catch his breath. An autopsy would later show he had taken cocaine that evening.

“I was just trying to get him arrested,” the officer told investigators, in explanation of his actions.

After Hammock was cuffed and in obvious respiratory distress, records show, it was several more minutes before an ambulance was called, and then another 15 minutes before Hammock was loaded into the ambulance to be taken to JPS Hospital.

Fort Worth police did not respond to the Weekly’s requests for comments on the report. Nor did the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office, which ruled Hammock’s death the result of an accidental cocaine overdose.

TASER International, which manufactures the Taser weapons, also failed to return calls seeking comment. But since Hammock’s death — one in a list of more than 150 deaths of persons shortly after being tasered — the company has changed its claims about the laser weapon. The company, which is being sued by Hammock’s widow Kathi, no longer call them “non-lethal” but now refers to Tasers as “less lethal” weapons. And TASER has added a warning to its web page, noting that prolonged or repeated use of the weapon on a person may “contribute to ... medical risk” and, in combination with other factors, “may result in serious injury or death.”

For Kathi Hammock, the new report just intensified feelings of having had her husband stolen from her. “I just want everybody to know that what was done to my husband was wrong,” she said. “And I don’t want it happening to anybody else. Me and my daughter are spending our first Christmas without him. They don’t realize what they took from me.”

Hammock is one of three people who died in an eight-month period after being hit with Tasers by Fort Worth police. In all three cases, autopsies showed the victims had taken illegal drugs — part of a marked pattern across the country in which deaths have closely followed when persons on drugs were hit by Tasers. In none of the Fort Worth cases did the deceased person have a weapon, although all three had refused to follow officers’ commands or had resisted arrest. None was engaged in violent crime before officers began attempting to make the arrest.

Hammock was on his way home to Midland from Louisiana on the night of April 3, when he took the Riverside Drive exit off I-30 in Fort Worth and pulled through the open gates of a Waste Management facility parking lot where Fort Worth Police Officer C.P. Birley was moonlighting as a guard. Birley, sitting in his truck, waved at Hammock to stop him from entering the private property. Whether or not he saw the officer, Hammock left almost immediately. He drove around a building and reappeared in a few seconds. As Hammock headed back out, Birley, in uniform and out of his vehicle, waved to him to stop, but the architect ignored him and headed south on Riverside Drive.

Birley followed him and called for backup, because Hammock had trespassed and then failed to follow his orders to stop. In the next few minutes, as the slow chase wound through a neighborhood, Birley said Hammock committed no traffic violations. But when the architect wound up at a dead end, he got out of his car and again refused Birley’s order to stop, instead walking, then running away, down a railroad track.

Birley finally caught up with Hammock a couple of blocks later. Police records recount how the officer found an out-of-shape Hammock leaning forward, his hands on his knees, sweating, and breathing heavily. Birley tried to grab hold of Hammock’s right arm, but he jerked it away.

What followed were several minutes in which Hammock, after a warning, was tasered repeatedly. At one point he dropped to his knees, but then “started swinging his arms” at the officer, got up, was tasered again, got up again and started running, and then, when he grabbed a tree and wouldn’t let go, was stunned several more times. Again he got up and walked away and got tasered again. He was stunned several more times as he lay on the ground because he wouldn’t unclench his arms from beneath his chest so that he could be handcuffed.

Birley said he remembered shooting Hammock with the laser weapon “five or six” times, but the computer chip in his weapon told a different story. It recorded Birley’s weapon as having been discharged 20 times that night, including 11 times in the first two minutes, for five to 11 seconds at a time.

Asked if the repeated shocks had any effect on Hammock, Birley responded, “It had enough effect ... he dropped to his knees. But when he dropped to his knees, he started swinging his arms at me. And that’s when I stepped back, because I didn’t want to get hit, and I put a cartridge on, and I shot him with the cartridge.”

Birley said Hammock only swung at him when the architect was on his knees, and once more when he was on his feet. “[T]o be honest with you, I can’t really say I was in fear for my life,” he said. “I was just trying to get him arrested.”

Asked whether Hammock ever made a move to his pockets as if to get a weapon, or whether Birley thought he might have a weapon, he said: “No. No.”

Eventually, after the repeated shocks, Birley managed to drag Hammock into a clearing, as other officers arrived on the scene. But Hammock, on his stomach, kept his arms beneath him. So Birley stunned him three more times. Then Officer Rachel Sevasin hit him five times with her weapon. In a 39-second period, Hammock was tasered for 28 seconds. At the end of it, he was cuffed.

At that point, Birley said in the report, “there was no response in his eyes.” Sevasin noted that the architect “had become pale.” Less than an hour later, after he had stopped breathing at the scene and received CPR, he was declared dead.

By Birley’s own admission, Hammock’s only crimes were momentarily trespassing (though he left when told to) on the Waste Management lot, then refusing to be arrested. In his tussles with Hammock, Birley received only a scratch on the leg, which he said probably came from foliage while grabbing Hammock in the trees. Birley was cleared of any wrongdoing by both a grand jury and the police department’s internal discipline process. Sevasin, who stunned Hammock five times while he lay on the ground face down, has also been cleared.

Edward Jackson, spokesman for Amnesty International, which has done extensive research on Taser use and abuse, said his organization understands that, “any time a person doesn’t comply with direct orders given by the police it creates a situation in which the police could be in danger. And they’ve got a right to respond on an equal level to the danger posed to them.

“On the other hand, in a situation where an unarmed suspect is not on the attack, a situation in which the suspect is simply not complying quickly enough with an order, well, rational people have to question the logic of shocking someone like that 25 times.”

Peter Gorman can be reached at peterg9@yahoo.com.


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